IT IS worrying that the government has not yet been able to compensate the families of the victims of the Chawkbazar fire that killed 70 people in Old Town of Dhaka on February 20, 2019. Family members of the victims, at a commemorative programme on Saturday marking the second anniversary of the tragic event, lamented that the government was yet to fulfil its promise to compensate and rehabilitate them and that they felt abandoned. After the disaster, which turned to be massive because of a chemical storeroom housed illegally at a residential building, the government promised to compensate the victim families and provide government jobs to their dependents, but have so far only provided a meagre sum for the burial or cremation of the deceased. The government has not also distributed, family members claim, Tk 30 crore, donated by a number of private banks to the prime minister’s Relief and Welfare Fund for the fire victims. What is also worrying is that the government, despite repeated promises, has failed to relocate chemical factories and storehouses from the densely-populated Old Town of Dhaka. Old Town residents have been demanding the relocation since the fire incident at Nimtali chemical warehouse on June 2, 2010, which killed 123 people.
About 15,000 chemical depots, keeping to a Transparency International Bangladesh study, are reported to be still in operation in the residential areas of Old Town of Dhaka. The government response to the situation appears to have been limited to occasional, and largely ineffective, eviction drives and promises of relocation. A lack of political will and wide-scale corruption in making delinquent traders adhere to safety rules resulted, as the study says, in a number of fires, including the two at Nimtali and Chawkbazar, in the past. The TIB study, published in September 2020, observes that chemical businesses are still in operation in the area because of the government’s failure to live up to its promises. The study also gives a 10-point recommendation including proper compensation to victim families of the Nimtali and Chawkbazar disasters, an early relocation of hazardous depots and the formation of a national chemical safety committee to stop the recurrence of accidents. Immediately after the devastating Nimtali fire, the government proposed to build a chemical village in Keraniganj for the relocation of chemical stores from the residential areas in Old Town of Dhaka, but it has not been able to do that. Another plan to build a temporary and safe chemical warehouse project in the city’s Shyampur area has also not materialised.
A complete relocation of the chemical warehouses is what is needed to ensure the safety of the people living in panic in Old Town as they are exposed to, what experts have termed, ‘chemical bombs’ that can detonate any time. The government, in such a situation, must keep its promises and compensate the families of the victims immediately and adequately. The government must also relocate the hazardous chemical industry from Old Town of Dhaka at the earliest. Episodic drives and unimplemented initiatives will not bring about any change and will not ensure the safety of the residents of the area.
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